Friday, October 14, 2005

Is the Lecture Obsolete?

In the winter quarter I will be teaching a lecture-based course on the theory of finance. It has three main elements:

  1. The principle of diversification, culminating in the Capital Asset Pricing Model

  2. The principle of hedging, culminating in the Black-Scholes option pricing formula

  3. Markets with asymmetric information, with implications for financing, payout, and governance
I last taught the course 5 years ago, teaching exclusively a senior seminar in the intervening years. I'm dreading going back into a lecture hall, as opposed to a seminar room. My sentiments are best summed up with this quote, from a piece by mathematics professor Jerry Uhl of the University of Illinois:
One of the first to note that the lecture system needed to be replaced was Ralph Boas in 1980 : "As a means of instruction, lectures ought to have become obsolete when the printing press was invented. We had a second chance when the Xerox machine was invented, but we muffed it."

The whole article, "How Technology Influenced Me to Stop Lecturing and Start Teaching," is worth a read. And "technology" here doesn't mean replacing yellowed lecture notes with pre-fabricated powerpoint slides. The classroom experience should be active, not passive, and economics as a discipline ought to be taught more as a lab and less as a lecture. I'd be receptive to any pointers to innovative classroom methods or materials.

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Son1 said...

I gotta say, anyone whose lectures are made obsolete by books or printed notes... never was a very good lecturer in the first place.

Easily the best lecturer I ever had (maybe not in a lecture "hall," but certainly in a class of about 30, so not a seminar-style lecture either) is just down the street from you (I think): right here.

And he teaches (at least, he taught) a course around one of the best intro CS books ever written. If ever there was a book to make lectures obsolete, it was this one.

The secret of the good lecture, I think, is that it has a structure similar to a stand-up comedy routine. It has almost a closed-loop, narrative feel. It contains humor, and it's not about the transmission of facts. It's about the use of those facts: examples, and motivation. Books are good at recording facts, but few writers are up to the task of properly motivating their readers...

So the good lecturer describes why and how, not necessarily what. S/he asks a question and (like a good stand-up comedian) often ends by answering that same question.

That's really hard to get from a book. It's damn-near-impossible to get it from notes.

Anonymous said...

Don't throw out the baby with the bath water. Appropriately integrated with other techniques, the lecture remains an efficient and effective tool, the problem arises when it is used exclusively and/or restrictively. There has been some productive research in this area over the past decade, see for e.g.

There are other resources I can reference if you wish but I can confirm from personal experience that the interactive lecture techniques can be effective. I believe they also may make for an easier transition than some other techniques, particularly for those who already have extensive lecture materials prepared.


Anonymous said...

I too think lectures have a place. A lot of life is a lecture: the world is an auditorium, and it is a student's duty to listen and learn. Complete lack of lectures in an education may not be great.

That being said, seminars are nice and enjoyable as well.

Regarding lectures... there was also a social aspect with other students (different from seminars) that was enjoyable to me.

A lecture is also an opportunity to leverage uniquely talented professors who would otherwise not be available to as many students.

Anonymous said...

Here are some ideas:

Everyone can get copies of notes from lectures. With no encouragement from professors, groups of students often form, share notes and study together. Often students form groups that are better at studying than available for purchase at a copy shop.

Second, immediate feedback and interaction would be nice. Maybe a lecturer could ask short questions to students PRIOR to lecture. The results could be summarized and tabulated by class. This adds an element of suspense regarding lecture content and may make it more interesting to attend. Technology may make it easy for a professor to do this.

Third, even lecture courses I took often had some sort of smaller group discussion/class led by a TA. There were also optional review sessions for students with questions. This might be a good Friday night activity (vs. bars and parties).

Finally, some lecturers really are performers. Students go because it is fun.

PGL said...

CAPM is obsolete? Here is what is scary from the world of overpaid economist consultants working in tax practices. Some of their work involves valuing enterprises and assets, which invariably gets around to estimating the cost of capital. Some of these appraisers are still not using CAPM or any other version of APT. Some of their work is called "transfer pricing", which often is about asking the question - what is the expected return to assets. CAPM was suggested by Tom Horst many years ago but is just now catching on. And if you think I'm implying your students will know more than some fellows getting $200,000 a year, you'd be right.

Kent said...

Here is a nice piece on one alternative to the traditional lecture. It is interactive -- brutally interactive.

Emmanuel said...

Like any form of public speaking, a lecturer's skill is crucial in conveying ideas and imparting knowledge. It doesn't matter if it's a priest before his congregation or a stand-up comedian in a nightclub. To be successful, a speaker must know how to engage the interest of his audience, and in the process, relay the message he has in mind. In a word, a bit of showmanship is required even in lecturing--how do you break things up when things get monotonous, invoke student participation, use real-life examples that students can relate to, etc.

Of course, this isn't easy by any means. I will digress here a bit and say that the system of higher education is stacked against skilled instructors. By placing most of the incentives on research, teaching is often neglected. A former professor of mine described it well. He said that research was the path to freedom from having "300 college kids yelling at you at the same time."

It's a real shame that less incentives are given to those who can teach well but aren't so active in research. "Teaching Excellence" awards do little to bolster one's pay slip, whereas a major publication or two has been shown to. So, many work hard to get published while not caring a whit that they are bone-dry lecturers. Fixing this incentive imbalance is likely the way of ensuring that teaching quality is given more attention.

Arun Khanna said...

Ross Miller has a book that might interest you.

I think Professors recognize the value of non-lecture courses but our students (who are typically weaned on passive TV viewing) may not.

Anonymous said...

Combine lecture with classroom experiments - if you have access to a computer lab Ztree (available free from the Univ of Zurich) is easy to use & will let you tailor your experiments to the lecture material. Experiments don't all have to be elaborate enough to require Ztree.
For example, after you explain to students the difference between expected utility and expected value, follow it up with a coin flipping experiment. Offer the students bets: if heads they get one extra credit point, if tails they lose one point. Ask how many are willing to take the bet, then raise the stakes to 5, 10, or more points. Now how many are willing to take the bet?
I think lectures are necessary, but you can reinforce the material through interactive methods that help make abstract concepts more concrete.

Anonymous said...

when it took ten sheep to make enough velum for a book and ten scribes a year to pen it students needed to be in one place at one time to hear the books read. after the introduction of paper to Europe and the invention of the printing press books have been cheap. this makes not only lecturing but teaching obsolete. formal education is disgusting, and those that perpetuate it are disgusting. if you are a moral man you will resign your professorship.